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Don’t wait for a life-changing event to change jobs

There are many reasons we stay in jobs longer than we should—and reasons why it often takes a tragedy to consider changing things up. But there’s a way to avoid this.

Don’t wait for a life-changing event to change jobs
[Photo: Andre A. Xavier/Unsplash]

Chances are, you know several people who hate their jobs. In fact, you might be one of those people. And, while it’s possible that some people have always disliked their jobs, it is likely that the opportunity seemed more appealing at the start. It came along with regular hours and a steady paycheck, new responsibilities, and perhaps even some exciting opportunities for growth.

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But slowly, things changed. It might have been an erosion of morale, or a downturn that created stress, or a bad boss. Whatever it is, the exciting opportunity has now become just a job, and that job may have felt more like a chore for a long time.

If this situation sounds familiar, you may wonder why you’re still at a job that isn’t very fulfilling. There may be several reasons why you haven’t started looking for something more exciting. One is that the job probably got worse slowly over time, so there was no particular day when it felt like it got so much worse that it warranted a job search.

Relatedly, if your job got worse slowly, then you might not really be aware exactly how much worse it is. On top of that, looking for a job creates uncertainty, which is unpleasant, and so staying in a suboptimal job is the lesser of two evils.

In this context, it should not be surprising that many people don’t get the energy to consider a career change until some kind of tragedy strikes. In my book, Bring Your Brain to Work, I relay the stories of two people—one who did not consider a career change until after suffering a serious illness and a second who was recovering from an injury when he finally decided to change jobs.

This is a common experience for many. Tragedies change people’s perspective on work, because they remind people of their own mortality. The uncertainty of making a career switch seems significant when compared to another day or week at an unpleasant job. But, when you or a loved one is sick or injured, then you consider the regret you would experience looking back on your career and realizing that it was unfulfilling.

You do not need to wait for a dire situation to give yourself permission to think about changing jobs or even switching careers. Instead, there are two strategies you can use if you find yourself dissatisfied with your work.

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First, pick a time each year to evaluate how your career is going rather than waiting for a particular day when you are unhappy enough to start a job search. For example, use your yearly HR evaluation as your opportunity to ask whether it is time to look for a job at another firm or even to prepare for a more drastic career switch.

When you evaluate your career on a yearly basis like this, you can treat the decision as more momentous than just thinking about the day-to-day frustrations you experience at work. In addition, a yearly evaluation gives you a chance to take a step back from the job and think about it more abstractly. You may find it easier to commit to the general goal to look for a new job than to ask whether it is worth disrupting your daily routine to look for a job. Of course, if you do make this commitment, you also need to make a specific plan for how you will look for a new job or retrain for a different career path.

Second, make use of your capacity for mental time travel. Think about what it would be like to look back on your career given the path you’re on. Will you be happy that you stuck with an unfulfilling job?

This strategy essentially puts you in the same mindset you would be in when confronting your mortality following a tragedy. But in this case, you’re able to make this choice without the intense emotion and grief you experience during stressful times that may make it hard to make significant new plans.Ultimately, you should put yourself in a position to keep control over your own career decisions, rather than letting inertia drive your long-term career path.

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